Alberta Cancer Foundation

The Wheat from the Chaf

Everywhere you turn, there’s another food product or cookbook that promotes gluten-free eating. Restaurants offer gluten-free selections. You read about celebrities attributing their weight loss or improved health to a gluten-free diet. Is this a trend or a healthie Oats are naturally gluten-free but may contain gluten when processed in a facility that also processes wheat.

There are groups of people who must avoid gluten. They are people with celiac disease and people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Estimates indicate that about one per cent of the western population has celiac disease and it affects more females than males. It’s an autoimmune disorder, meaning the immune system attacks itself. When someone has celiac disease and eats food with gluten, it damages the intestinal wall. The body is then unable to absorb vitamins such as folate and minerals such as calcium and iron. The result is bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation, migraines, depression and mouth ulcers. Over time, gluten in the diet of people with celiac disease can lead to osteoporosis, anemia, infertility and even cancer. But following a strict gluten-free diet for life can lead to healthy intestines and freedom from both symptoms and long-term health problems.

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is a non-allergic and non-autoimmune response to gluten. Between six and nine per cent of the population has gluten sensitivity. Symptoms can vary. The most common is abdominal pain and other symptoms similar to celiac disease. But exposure to gluten does not damage the intestines.
Celebrities have promoted a gluten-free diet as it is a great way to lose weight. But grains without gluten, such as corn, millet, quinoa and rice, are similar in calories to the gluten-containing grains. A gluten-free cookie has a similar nutritional content and calorie count as a similar cookie without gluten, and it’s no more healthful.

Before you go gluten-free, consider a few points. If you think you have celiac disease, see your doctor to be screened for it before cutting gluten out. Symptoms associated with celiac disease are the same as those of many other things, from overeating to lactose intolerance. Getting properly diagnosed is important.
The best strategy for losing weight and keeping it off is to work with a registered dietitian on an eating plan that fits your lifestyle. A dietitian can also help you sort through nutritional information to find solid research behind the recommendations.

So before you head to the grocery store to purchase gluten-free bread or remove all the wheat flour and gluten-containing products from your cupboards, ask yourself if the drastic change is necessary for a long-term healthy weight and lifestyle. Eating well can be simple, but it’s not easy at first. It takes time and practice preparing and eating foods from each of the food groups as recommended by Canada’s Food Guide.

Sifting the Information

How do you sort through all the diet information available on the web, television or magazines in the checkout line at the grocery store? Ask yourself these questions:

  • Is someone trying to sell you something such as a book, food product or supplement?
  • Is there research to support the claims or is it just personal opinion or testimonial?
  • Is the research recent and is it documented?
  • Who is promoting the information? Is it a health professional such as a doctor, registered dietitian, physiotherapist or pharmacist?
  • Does it sound too good to be true?

Karol Sekulic is a registered dietitian with Alberta Health Services who has expertise and interest in the areas of weight management, nutrition and communications.